What my brain matter is currently perplexing (thoughts on): Gameplay in service to Aesthetics

Last night I felt the urge to play a game with a deep melee combat system, something like arkham city though I didn’t feel like playing an arkham game, so I fired up Steam and downloaded the demo for sleeping dogs. For the last few years whenever I had a conversation about sandbox games, with everyone from my closest casual gaming friends to the rare cases when I got to talk to actual game designers, Sleeping Dogs would always be mentioned as a passing fancy, a great game that was a pleasant experience when your were playing it but slips away when you put down the controller. This intrigued me and so I started up the demo and skipped the cutscenes, I wanted nail-biting, heart pounding, fast paced action and that’s what I got; You start off dropped into a representation of inner Hong Kong at night and then as you turn a corner BAM! your chasing a guy down the populated streets of Hong Kong, jumping over railings, crash landing through a glass roof and landing on some poor street venders stand. You then chase your target onto the roof of a small building and your target instructs a small group of goons to attack you and then the combat begins:

From a glance Sleeping dogs combat seems almost identical to that of the arkham games with a bit of assassin’s creed present through the ability to grab, though the game refers to it as grappling; there’s a button to counter attacks, a button for the aforementioned grappling that can lead to environmental kills and a button for light attacks that doubles as a heavy attack button if you hold it down long enough. But this isn’t what interested me, what interested me was what happened when I missed a goon. Now if you don’t know what type of a game Sleeping Dogs is; it’s a third-person sandbox crime game that draws inspiration from martial arts and triad movies and this is were the gameplay serves the aesthetics the game is aiming for i.e. a martial arts cop thriller centred around the triads. When I pressed the button to attack the one of the gang members Wei, the player character, did a round house kick that missed the goon I was aiming for but instead of the goon continuing his approach he shot back and dodged my kick. This immediately reminded me of the famous corridor scene from the movie Oldboy (the original movie from 2003) in which Dae-Su, the movies protagonist, engages in a brutal 20 to 1 fight against a group of goons. Dae-Su is repeatedly beaten, repeatedly misses when he puches the gang members and repeatedly looks for small gaps between attacks to catch his breath. The scene is tightly choreographed, and while not the insane perfect attacks of Jet-li, the fight has a realistic weight to it as Dae-Su scrambles to beat the 20 goons.

Back to the game though: by all means I had just screwed up; I had lost my combo, another gang member hit me as I didn’t have time to counter and I had to now get back into the sway of combat but I didn’t feel as though I messed up. Let me explain by comparing what happened in Sleeping Dogs to a similar experience in Arkham City: In Arkham City when you miss a goon, whether they were out of reach or you were in the wrong direction, Batman doesn’t do the same attack like he would if he had hit a goon; he does a weird little right hook accompanied by a slight lunge forward. When this happens you loose your combo, a goon hits you as you didn’t have time to counter and you have to get back into the sway of combat and all in all you feel as though you messed up. One big reason for this is the sound used when batman misses and losses a combo; the combo meter in the game takes up a fair amount of the top left of the screen and is accompanied by flashing particle effects that change colour depending on how many hits you’ve strung together. When you lose the combo a farley loud sound is played like a machine being powered down and the combo meter falls from the screen in bright lights and for me took me out of the experience and broke my immersion; Your Batman! Batman doesn’t miss, Batman doesn’t get hit by some low level goon and stumble backward into a wall. The game let’s you know you’ve messed up.

Sleeping Dogs on the other hand doesn’t break the flow when your hit and doesn’t take you out the experience. This is due to three things: Firstly, unlike the combo meter in the Arkham games, the combo meter in Sleeping Dogs is small and minimalist and is located at the bottom left of the screen and when you get hit it makes a slight sound but not as loud and noticeable as in Arkham City and doesn’t disappear with fanfare; it simply changes colour from a slight red to dark grey and you barely notice it. Secondly Wei is not hampered by the same expectations as Batman; Wei is, after all, just a cop with some minor martial arts training and is not presented as a harrowing figure the way batman is and so when Wei misses he’s not breaking character. Now I’m not saying Batman is never hit but look at Batman comics and movies; in the Dark Knight movie trilogy Batman takes out the goons with no difficulty and is rarely, if never, hit by them. It is always by a character like Bane or an elite figure like ra’s al ghul’s assassins and even in the comics when you read something like the Court of Owls story ark Batman is repeatedly beaten to a pulp but always beaten by the Courts highly trained assassins. There is no expectations of Wei. Thirdly and finally is the way combat is presented; In the case of Arkham City Batman’s combat and his movements are smooth and fluid, he is a man who has spent years training and has had years of combat experience, he is also meant to be better than the goons at hand-to-hand combat so that when a goon throws a lazy right hook Batman counters by back-flipping over him and breaking his arm in one fluid movement. Batman is a character who knows what he’s doing and so being taken down by a lazy right hook thrown by some goon who couldn’t pass his high school English exam just doesn’t feel right. On the other hand, little is known about Wei’s training and he’s presented as a rough undercover cop, fresh from his trip to the USA but overall he is just a man. So when he engages in combat all his moves seem rough around the edges and he doesn’t have the raw strength of Batman. Wei is not an imposing and harrowing figure, he isn’t in some high tech suit that is drenched in symbolism, he is just your average guy, a little bit stronger and with more training albeit but average, fighting gang members in a t-shirt and jeans and when Wei’s health bar depletes and he is on his last sliver of health he shows psychical damage and clutches his side while blood runs down his face. He is vulnerable in ways Batman cannot be.

The gameplay in Sleeping Dogs serves aesthetics of a Kung-Fu crime movie. Like my Oldboy example; in these type of movies the protagonist is presented as capable but not invincible. By the end of most of those movies the protagonist looks like he’s been through hell, much like Wei at the end of a fight. Now Arkham City and the Arkham series are excellent games and in their defence when Batman was weakened due to story reasons or went up against the League of assassin’s assassins being hit didn’t feel like I messed up, sure the combo meter was still rather dramatic but overall these were highly trained foes and my immersion rarely wavered. The average goons though were designed to be easy targets, something to keep the pacing going and only really posed a threat when they’re in large groups. The Arkham games gameplay does serve the aesthetics but when you mess up or Batman messes up immersion will be easily broken and sure when your getting you ass kicked in Sleeping Dogs so hard you could technically call your ass a shoe shelf  immersion can be broken. but not as easily. I recommend both games and even though I’ve only played pieces of Sleeping Dogs it is a faithful adaption of triad movies to an interactive medium and while the story is not as original when taken out of context think of this game as more of a tribute to triad movies but by all means evaluate the game on its own merits and values.